Gladiator

Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson (story by David Franzoni)
Stars: Russell Crowe (Maximus), Joaquin Phoenix (Commodus), Connie Nielsen (Lucilla), Oliver Reed (Proximo), Derek Jacobi (Gracchus), Djimon Hounsou (Juba), Richard Harris (Marcus Aurelius), David Schofield (Falco)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2000
Country: U.S.
Gladiator UHD 4K Blu-ray
Gladiator

The release of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in the summer of 2000 seemed to confirm that the recently created DreamWorks, after six years of theatrical releases, had settled on a unique strategy of using a summer tentpole release to revive a long-dormant Hollywood genre with a splashy, special-effects-laden modern spin. This strategy arguably began with the successful revival the World War II epic in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998), and the following year they tried (with considerably less success) to bring back the spectacle of the haunted house with Jan De Bont’s The Haunting (1999).

Although we now know that it went on to be a massive box office hit and took home a sack of Oscars, the release of Gladiator, which was their most expensive film to date, represented the unimaginable: a $103-million attempt to resurrect the long-dead ancient Roman epic, a once steadfast Hollywood genre that has been defunct since the mid-1960s when big hits like Ben-Hur (1959) and Spartacus (1960) were eventually overshadowed by colossal financial failures like Cleopatra (1963) (not to mention 1980’s notorious big-budget hard-core epic Caligula). In returning that long-deserted terrain, Gladiator sought to be an old-fashioned sword-and-sandal tale amped up with graphic violence and a slick gloss of sentimentality. It almost worked.

The story opens with the Romans battling the barbarian tribes in Germania around 180 A.D. Maximus (Russell Crowe), a Roman from the Spanish province (although he speaks with a British accent—go figure), is a highly venerated general who leads his armies to great victories (for the historical record, Rome never managed to defeat the Germans). He is so successful and loved that the dying Caesar, Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris), asks him to accept power when he dies and give it back to the Senate so that Rome may become a republic again. Marcus Aurelius’s ambitious and cruel son, Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), has other plans, and when the Caesar dies he executes Maximus’s family and attempts to have Maximus killed so that power will be maintained on the throne.

Maximus escapes, but winds up in slavery where he is bought by an ex-gladiator-turned-profiteer named Proximus (Oliver Reed), who trains him to become a great gladiator. In ancient Rome, gladiators were heroes loved and followed by the crowds. Several times in the film, it is emphasized that Rome is not the Caesar or the Senate or even really the people: Rome is the mob. Whatever those bloodthirsty crowds of 50,000 in the Colosseum want, they get. “Win the crowd,” Proximus tells Maximus, which he does by becoming the best gladiator in the empire.

When Commodus discovers that Maximus is still alive and well, he cannot have him killed because he is loved too much by the crowds. Even when he stacks the odds against Maximus—such as staging a fight against the only other undefeated Roman gladiator and putting a couple of hungry tigers in the ring as well—Maximus is still victorious and, in the process, becomes even more popular. Because of his immense popularity, Maximus is able to scheme a way to dethrone Commodus, an endeavor in which he is aided by Commodus’s sister, Lucilla (Connie Nielsen), with whom he was once romantically involved, and a Senator named Gracchus (Derek Jacobi).

The story is much less confusing than it sounds on paper, but director Ridley Scott takes a full two and a half hours to tell it. The screenplay, which according to numerous reports was cobbled together in bits and pieces by screenwriters David Franzoni (Amistad), John Logan (Any Given Sunday), and William Nicholson (First Knight) while shooting was in progress, plays it fast and loose with the historical facts. Maximus is a purely fictional creation, although most of those with whom he shares the screen appear in historical record.

A great deal of time and money was invested in recreating Rome in all its decadent splendor, and for the record, Gladiator is a dark, but visually astounding piece of work (Scott, ever the impressive visual stylist, was returning to the historical epic for the first time since his disastrous 1492: Conquest of Paradise in 1992). Using computer effects (some of which are better than others), the filmmakers attempt to recreate the spectacle of being in the Colosseum with tens of thousands of screaming Romans looking down. They include an overhead tracking shot that starts above the Roman streets and moves over the Colosseum, giving us a bird’s eye view of the scope and scale of the ancient world (it also makes an interesting connection to modern sports obsession, as the shot is quite reminiscent of the overhead blimp shots that are so common in NFL football games).

While Gladiator suffers from an excess of almost sickening sentimentality and a jagged narrative that moves in an often lurching fashion, the film is perfectly cast. Russell Crowe, who won his first Oscar for the role, radiates both the power and intelligence necessary for Maximus, a character who is pure fantasy grounded just enough to be believable. Joaquin Phoenix is likewise perfectly suited for the role of Commodus, but for exactly the opposite reasons. Often shot with overhead lighting that darkens his deep eye sockets, thus giving him the appearance of a skull, Phoenix excels at being menacing in a completely despicable way. The filmmakers stack the deck against him, giving him the cliché effeminate qualities that always characterize cowardly Roman dictators, while also giving him hints of incestuous desire for his sister and even the suggestion of pedophilia.

When Gladiator eventually fails, it is because it tries too hard. After all, this a film that was written during principle photography, so it is likely that the story is going to suffer. This didn’t stop Scott from trying to fashion a film that would out-emote Braveheart (1995), and it is here that the film grinds to a dead halt. Scott tries to milk every bit of sentimentality he can from Maximus’s slaughtered wife and child and his simple wish to “go home,” which becomes the fuel for his battle. This is tactical mistake in the story department, as the intrigue of political scheming and the bloody display of gladiatorial battle far outweigh familial sentiment, and it makes one impatient. Gladiator wants to move us emotionally, but it’s much better when it’s reveling in the mud and the blood.

Gladiator 4K Ultra-HD + Blu-ray + Digital
This edition of Gladiator includes both the original theatrical version and a director’s extended edition.

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
Audio
  • English DTS: X (4K UHD)
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (4K UHD)
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (4K UHD)
  • English DTS Headphone: X (4K UHD)
  • English Audio Description (4K UHD)
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround (Blu-ray)
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (Blu-ray)
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround (Blu-ray)
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish, Korean
    Supplements
  • Introduction by Ridley Scott (Extended Edition)
  • Audio commentary by director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe (Extended Edition)
  • Audio commentary by director Ridley Scott, editor Pietro Scalia, and cinematographer John Mathieson (Theatrical Edition)
  • The Scrolls of Knowledge
  • Deleted Scenes Index with Optional Commentary by Ridley Scott
  • Visions from Elysium: Topic Portal
  • Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator documentary
  • Image & Design: Storyboard Demonstration, Storyboard Archive, Costume Design Gallery, Photo Galleries
  • Abandoned Sequences & Deleted Scenes
  • “The Making of Gladiator” featurette
  • “Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport” documentary
  • “Hans Zimmer: Scoring Gladiator” featurette
  • “An Evening With Russell Crowe” featurette
  • “Maximus Uncut: Between Takes with Russell Crowe” featurette
  • “My Gladiator Journal by Spencer Treat Clark”
  • “VFX Explorations: Germania & Rome” featurette
  • Theatrical trailers and TV spots
  • DistributorParamount Home Entertainment
    SRP$31.99
    Release DateMay 15, 2018

    COMMENTS
    Gladiator looks generally spectacular in its new 4K UHD presentation. Ridley Scott is nothing if not a great visual stylist, and Gladiator is one of his more ambitious visual feats, especially since he was essentially bringing an otherwise dead genre back to life in decidedly modern form. The increased resolution brings out new layers of detail in the image, from the mud and blood of the opening battlefield, to the textures in clothing and the rough metal of swords and other weapons. The higher resolution does have the negative effect of making some of the film’s more obvious CGI elements seem even more unrealistic, but that is an issue with the film itself, rather than its presentation. The DTS: X soundtrack is a fully immersvive affair, drowning us in Hans Zimmer’s symphonic score and the intense sounds of battle.

    In terms of supplements, there isn’t anything new here, but the disc does pack in the same overwhelming cavalcade of extratextual material that has been found on several previous releases. Both the 4K UHD and the Blu-ray feature multiple audio commentaries. On the extended director’s edition, we get a commentary by director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe, while the original theatrical version features one by Scott and editor Pietro Scalia and cinematographer John Mathieson. A feature called “The Scrolls of Knowledge,” which is available on both versions of the film, gives you the option of clicking on an on-screen scroll and then viewing a supplementary piece related to that scene. We also get 13 deleted scenes with optional director commentary.

    Then there is a whole second Blu-ray packed with supplements, beginning with “Visions of Elysium,” which is comprised hours of material. Strength and Honor: Creating the World of Gladiator is a comprehensive, 3-hour-and-16-minute documentary broken into seven sections: “Tale of the Scribes: Story Development” (34 min.), “The Tools of War: Weapons” (13 min.), “Attire of the Realm: Costume Design” (20 min.), “The Heat of the Battle: Production Journals” (1 hour 5 min.), “Shadows and Dust: Resurrecting Proximo” (24 min.), “The Glory of Rome: Visual Effects” (20 min.), and “Echoes in Eternity: Release and Impact” (18 min.). As with the previous Blu-ray edition, Strength and Honor can also be viewed in an “enhanced viewing mode” that allows you to select additional material that was not included on the DVDs.

    If you want to dive even further into the film’s production, the section “Image and Design” offers additional material, starting with “Production Design,” which is comprised of the featurette “Production Design Primer: Arthur Max” (9 min.) and two associated photo galleries. “Storyboarding” contains the featurette “Storyboard Demonstration: Sylvain Despretz” (13 min.) and “Multi-Angle Comparisons,” which allows us to see three scenes with multiple angles and audio streams and optional commentary by Despretz. “Costume Design Gallery” offers dozens of images of the wardrobe designs for Maximus, Commodus, Lucilla, Proximo, Gladiators, Marcus Aurelius, Senators, and Citizens. There are also additional photo galleries and the brief featurette “Weapons Primer: Simon Atherton” (5 min.).

    “Abandoned Sequences & Deleted Scenes” offers five scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical version, some of which were abandoned at the conceptual stage: Alternate Title Design, Blood Vision, Rhino Fight, Choose Your Weapon, and Treasure Chest. Most of these include optional audio commentary by Ridley Scott, and some also include accompanying featurettes or other contextualizing material (“Rhino Fight,” for example, includes CGI test footage of the rhino).

    And we haven’t even gotten to “The Aurelian Archives,” which is packed with even more featurettes, starting with “The Making of Gladiator” (25 min.), a compact look at the film’s production; “Gladiator Games: The Roman Bloodsport” (50 min.), a historical look at ancient Rome’s gladiatorial entertainment; “Hans Zimmer: Scoring Gladiator” (20 min.); “An Evening With Russell Crowe” (27 min.), in which the actor engages with an audience at a post-screening Q&A; “Maximus Uncut: Between Takes with Russell Crowe” (8 min.), a brief collection of bits involving Crowe on-set; “My Gladiator Journal by Spencer Treat Clark,” where we can read the actor’s journal entries while making the film; and “VFX Explorations: Germania & Rome” (24 min.). Also in this section are the film’s teaser trailer, original theatrical trailer, and 20 TV spots.

    Copyright © 2018 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Paramount Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2.5)



    James Kendrick

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